By Janet Meydam
Recently I have been searching diligently for my husband’s German ancestors and I’ve run into that age-old genealogy problem – how do I distinguish between two unrelated people who have the same name, similar ages and live near each other? Or two people from the same family with the same name?
If you have been tracing your family tree for any period of time, you have probably encountered this problem and it can be incredibly confusing – leading many down the wrong path in their research.
But, given how unexpectedly common it is for people to share names, how can identity mistakes be avoided? Here’s the system I use.
Start off by doing some quick searches to see if you can identify whether or not it is likely that others may share your ancestor’s name and/or basic details (such as birth and death years) in the location(s) where they lived. You can use FamilySearch for this purpose, or any other genealogy research site you are used to using. Type in your ancestor’s name and basic details and see what emerges.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Are there any other people with the same name or similar names?
- Do any of them share similar birth dates (with 10 years) or other key details?
- Did they live in the same town or county or nearby locations?
You should repeat this search in any specific collection or database you are using.
If you come across others with similar names and/or facts that could pose any confusion in your searches then it’s time to get organized. You’ll want to take the time to create a note with key details about the person you are researching and place it where you can easily see it during your research. Let’s call this your ancestor fact sheet. Here’s what to include.
Details that should be on your ancestor fact sheet:
- Full name, including all middle names, married names and nicknames, as well as major spelling variations
- Exact dates and locations of birth, marriage and death, as well as other major life events as you encounter them
- Exact locations lived during every census year and members of the household during that time period
- Occupations held, years and locations
- Locations and years when all children were born
- Full names and basic dates (birth/death) for spouses, parents and siblings
- Names of witnesses found on other records
- Religious details
- Anything else that you feel could help you differentiate your ancestor from another person
As mentioned above, you’ll want to be very clear in this fact sheet, using full names and exact dates and locations. This will help you distinguish between your relative and any similarly named individuals moving forward. Include all of the information you already have and add to this fact sheet as you research.
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If you find people so similar that they feel like a “twin” to your ancestor, you will also want to create a scaled down fact sheet for that person. This can make the job of sorting records even easier.
As an example, I will use my husband’s ancestor, Emmanuel Meydam. I have found this ancestor’s church baptism record from early 1784 in Robakau, Kreis Neustadt, West Prussia. The record lists his parents as Johann Meydam and Maria Anna Lowenau. I also have Emmanuel Meydam’s death record from 1856 in a small town near Putzig, Kreis Putzig, West Prussia. (Putzig is now Puck, Poland.)
While searching, I also found a record pertaining to a government position awarded to an Emmanuel Meydam in 1840. Could this record be about Emmanuel, my husband’s ancestor? It sure seemed to fit – but I couldn’t be sure.
Upon further research I discovered records for an Emmanuel Meydam that lived in the same area and had a birth date of 1794. Was this my Emmanuel with an incorrectly recorded birth year (1794 instead of 1784) or was it another person entirely? Clearly, I needed to be cautious.
To make the job of who’s who easier I created the fact sheet for my ancestor that included all of Emmanuel’s details, including his full name, dates, locations lived, and the names of all of his known spouses, siblings, parents and children.
Once I had this handy reference ready I could use it to very carefully match up birth, baptism, marriage and death facts, as well as known locations and relatives, on every record I encountered. I also made note of the potential second Emmanuel and his birth date.
When creating your own fact sheet, spend time locating your ancestor’s exact day, month and year of birth, death or marriage and record that if you can.
Be specific when you write down locations as well. Knowing the location where your ancestor lived will not usually help you to tell the difference between people with the same name, as often small towns had two or more people, all related to each other, and all with the same name. But when you pair details about the exact location with the other information you have you can use those details to help sort people out. Find out details about the history, geography, and cultural elements (here’s how to do it). All of these can give you clues.
And don’t forget to use full names for all related individuals. You can match the names and dates for close relatives to the records to determine which one is your ancestor. If you know the names of a person’s parents, spouse, or children, you can use these to help you find clues in the records. It’s a good reminder not to get stuck in the direct-line trap.
When I conducted further research on the potential second Emmanuel Meydam mentioned above, and born in 1794, I found that his full name was actually Johann Gottlieb Emmanuel Meydam and his parents were Michael Meydam and Christina Litzau. This does not match the records I have for my husband’s ancestor. In fact I found evidence that this Emmanuel Meydam was a cousin to “my” Emmanuel. This is the perfect example of how easily mix-ups can happen.
My occupational record from 1840 (mentioned above) names Emmanuel Meydam to an administrative government position in Heubude, which was a district that was located on the shore of the Baltic Sea close to the city of Danzig. (This area is now a part of Gdansk, Poland.) I found records pertaining to Johann Gottlieb Emmanuel Meydam as living in this area, as well as records for his son and grandson. In fact, his son and grandson also held administrative government positions in the same area.
I found no records for my husband’s ancestor Emmanuel Meydam in this part of Danzig. Therefore, I was able to reasonably conclude that the record from 1840 belonged to Johann Gottlieb Emmanuel Meydam, not my husband’s ancestor Emmanuel Meydam. Mystery solved!
Just as I did, don’t forget to consider all of your data together. A shared name and birth year, for instance, is not proof that a record matches your ancestor (instead of someone else). Be sure that you can match several details from your fact sheet, or that you have other solid evidence to support the addition of a record to your tree.
By attending to these details and following the process given in this example, you will be able to work through the records to determine who is who when dealing with people who have the same name in your own research. This process can also be adapted to help you avoid mix-ups within families, since many children can share similar names (especially when taking into consideration patronymics and matronymics).
For more help, consider an online course from Family History Daily where this process is examined in even more detail as part of the Breaking Down Brick Walls section. You’ll also discover 100+ additional lessons for improving your family history research.
Janet Meydam is a freelance writer who has over 40 years of experience in genealogy as a hobby. Her knowledge includes researching many different records from the United States, Germany and Poland. She is also a co-author of her parents’ family history book “I Come from a Long Line of Dilleys.” Janet works as an occupational therapist. She and her husband Tim have three adult children and live in Wisconsin.
Image: Washington, D.C., June 22. Members of the graduating class of 1910 at West Point these brothers, Lieut. Col. Beverly C. Dunn, (left) U.S. Engineer Corps, and Lieut. Col. Walter K. Dunn, U.S. Coast Artillery. Library of Congress.
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